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Author Michael Ondaatje talks about 'A Year of Last Things', his collection of poems


Michael Ondaatje, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, has a new volume of poetry, "A Year Of Last Things." And it may reveal much of his wide-ranging life - from his childhood in Sri Lanka during World War II to his adolescence in London, his life in Canada and travels all over the world. Let's ask him to read from the first poem in the book - "Lock."

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: (Reading) Reading the lines he loves, he slips them into a pocket, wishes to die with his clothes full of torn-free stanzas and the telephone numbers of his children in far cities. As if these were all we need and want, not the dog or silver bowl, not the brag of career or ownership. Unless they can be used - a bowl to beg with, a howl to scent a friend, as those torn lines remind us how to recall. Until we reach that horizon and drop, or rise like a canoe within a lock to search the other half of the river, where you might see your friends as altered by this altitude as you.

SIMON: Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" and so many other novels, joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thank you so much for being with us.

ONDAATJE: Thank you.

SIMON: What puts a poem into your mind?

ONDAATJE: I wish I knew, you know? The main thing for me is that if you know where you're going, then that's not the way to go, you know? I mean, Robert Creeley has a line - if you know what the last line of the book is, you take that line. You make it the first line. The writing of a poem is a sort of a discovery or reconnaissance. You're not quite sure where you will end up. And I've always believed that's the central rule of writing, especially poetry. In a novel, you have large plots to contend with. But in a poem, it's all to do with language and a tone or a gesture.

SIMON: Is this volume a kind of memoir? I'm thinking of the lines - all those small recalls of this and that before our walk up a staircase into the dark.

ONDAATJE: Well, I've never wanted to write a memoir, and I don't think this is in any way. It's essentially - it was made up of individual poems that didn't - wasn't in the order they were written. So once I'd written them - all these 50, 60 poems - I then had to kind of find a shape or an order for them that would suggest something that happened at one time and then another time and how things changed.

SIMON: May I ask who is the person you write about in the poem "Wanderer"?

ONDAATJE: I have a friend named Sam Solecki who is Polish, and he's a good friend. But it really was not just about him. It was about - just as much about me as it is about his family and how they escaped Poland during the war.

SIMON: I mean, it's quite a story that you relate in here.

ONDAATJE: Yeah. It's - this family was helped by a German person and - to escape Poland during the war.

SIMON: By a deserter who...


SIMON: ...I guess acted as a father figure, or...

ONDAATJE: He did. Yeah. And he helped them get out of, you know, Europe at that crucial time.

SIMON: May I ask you to read a short, and what I found startling, poem? Page 52 - "The Cabbagetown Pet Clinic."

ONDAATJE: (Laughter).

SIMON: And Cabbagetown, the neighborhood in Toronto, right?


(Reading) For years, I wrote during the day above the veterinarian - the howls, the heavy breathing, the sighs from that faraway untranslated world.

SIMON: An untranslated world in which animals exist?

ONDAATJE: Yes, only animals. You know, you could hear them, you know, on the ground floor. There's a lot in the book about what is untranslated and what is translated. I mean, I think when I was writing the book, I had this sudden great love of poets from other countries, and, you know, even great poets who - Zbigniew Herbert, for instance or Louise Erdrich in America.

So I think what I was discovering at this time is that how much of the writers I liked were poets and novelists, you know, as if they were amphibious. So someone like Raymond Carver, who is known mostly as a short story writer, in fact, was a fantastic poet, or D.H. Lawrence, you know, or Juan Gabriel Vasquez. And I became very interested in how they moved from one to another.

And then I came across this great remark by Ivo Andric, who's a Bosnian writer, who was a novelist and poet. And he said poets, unlike other people, are loyal only in misfortune, and they abandon those who are doing well. And I call just love that aspect of - this is the one quality in poets you can trust.

SIMON: Oh, my. You write a lot about a dog and a cat in your life, too.

ONDAATJE: Yeah. Yep.

SIMON: What did they call out to you? What is their untranslated world?

ONDAATJE: Well, I think there's a delight in animals that they are untranslated. So you interpret them in the best way you can. Anyone who has a dog or has lost a dog or a cat, there's an element of this great loss because it was unsaid, but you knew it was there.

SIMON: Well, in your in your poem "November," I made note of these lines. You write very simply - oh, Jack, I miss your presence everywhere - in the corners of rooms, in every chair. I think it's one of your most extraordinary poems, and I don't detect any poetic technique in it at all.

ONDAATJE: No. No. I mean, it was - you know, when we lost him, I think you were just left - you're made nonverbal. And you had to begin, in a kind of different way, to write or celebrate this cat.

SIMON: You have lines that ask - boy, this gets at me - will I wear a bell like yours into the afterlife, where language no longer exists?

ONDAATJE: Yeah. In some odd ways, it becomes one of the closest poems one writes, because it's not just recalling someone, but trying to reinterpret what was absent as well, you know, or that was silent.

SIMON: The book is called "A Year Of Last Things." Do you think about what's next?

ONDAATJE: No, I don't actually. I mean, when I finish a book, I'm in a very empty landscape of possibility. I've never really thought about what was next. And I - and this jump from poetry to fiction to poetry to fiction - you know, usually when I've finished a book, I feel, in some odd ways, it's mortal, you know, in a way. You can't go back and rewrite that book.

So what tends to happen when I finish a novel that's taken me four or five years, is I want to try and write something where I've never been before. And it could be poetry as opposed to fiction. So you're finding something new constantly to discover.

SIMON: Michael Ondaatje - his new book of poems, "A Year Of Last Things." Thank you so much for being with us.

ONDAATJE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.